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The EU reporter’s job is safe in my hands…

Today I had to write a story about Mercosur.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered it’s actually a group of South American countries who want a trade agreement with the European Union and not what I thought it was….

mercosur

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The funny side of farming

I managed to hold it together until the stereo started blaring out “Where’s your sausage gone?” to the tune of ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’.

It was at that point – stood outside Downing Street in front of a 16ft, shiny, hovering sausage – that I collapsed onto the floor in hysterical laughter.

sausage

You have to hand it to the pig industry – they certainly have a sense of humour.

At a time when producers are leaving the industry in droves thanks to spiralling input costs and appalling returns from retailers and processors, they went for comedy to make a very serious point.

At least, I hope they were trying to be funny.

Anyway, it certainly succeeded in being one of my more surreal days as a journalist. When I was at university learning the finer points of media law so I’d be able to bring down governments without getting done for libel, I thought I could only dream of being shouted at by Christine Hamilton for not wearing any gloves on a freezing day in March. Or asking the chief executive of the British Pig Executive in all seriousness how big his sausage was.

Much like the country’s pig producers, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry…

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Sausage signings

Tomorrow I’m going to be spending seven hours in central London with a load of pig farmers, an ex-Atomic Kitten, an ice-skating Gladiator, a 15ft sausage and a load of marker pens.

Giant sausage
I am a serious journalist… I am a serious journalist…. I am a serious journalist….

Jay Rayner would be impressed.

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A possible hairy situation for the NFU

Dear oh dear. I can’t image the NFU team are a bunch of happy bunnies at the moment.

Having given DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman a telling off this week for not taking farming seriously enough, this morning it’s emerged government plans for a badger cull to tackle bovine TB are being delayed.

Badger

The setback until May is supposedly so the DEFRA team can make doubly-sure the plans would stand up to any legal challenges (though it would handily coincide with the end of the local elections). But the delay means this year’s culling window will probably be missed, pushing a possible badger-cull programme back to spring 2012.

To potentially add to the DEFRA woes, Cazza Spelman’s decision to backtrack on plans to sell off England’s woodlands after Middle England threw its toys out of its pram means the department will lose out on about £80m it had expected to pocket from the scheme.

While nothing has been announced yet, there’s already chatter amongst government mandarins over where DEFRA will look to to fill the budget hole. NFU president Peter Kendall must be glad he really gave Cazza a good talking to over the importance of agricultural expenditure on Tuesday.

But while things are looking dodgy for the NFU on the DEFRA front, things are looking even worse on its own doorstep

Gwyn Jones NFU

It turns out that Gwyn Jones, the union’s vice president, is facing criminal charges over claims he used an unlicensed labour provider to employ migrant farm workers.

Whether Gwyn will feel he’s able to stick it out in the position while he’s going through a legal battle remains to be seen.

The situation throws up some real conundrums for the union. I spoke to several farmers at the conference this week who were concerned about the future of the NFU’s senior team.

With no obvious high-fliers coming up through the ranks, who is most likely to take over from Peter when his current term comes to an end?

Gwyn was named as a potential candidate, but if things go wrong there the NFU faces going into one of the most important periods of its history – CAP reform, badger culls, agriculture spending cuts and so on – without the kind of statesman it needs.

So does that mean Peter’s going to have no choice but to hang around a bit longer? Would he even get the necessary 75% of votes he’d need to keep the top spot?

Most importantly, is Mrs Kendall going to let him stand again? Something tells me he’s going to have some buttering-up to do…

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The day I met a proper journalist

Had I not chosen a career path which had taken me down a bizarre route into a niche avenue of journalism, I would have like to have become a proper writer on a national newspaper. Like John Pilger, perhaps. Or Jay Rayner.

Marco_Pierre_White
Y’know, Jay Rayner. The one who’s the stunt double for Marco Pierre White on those Knorr stockcube adverts?

You must know him – he’s that restaurant critic with over 17,000 followers on Twitter, the Observer column and his own slot on the One Show at 7 o’clock on Fridays?

The Jewish one who didn’t go to Oxbridge and lives in Brixton?

Jay Rayner
Yes, that’s him.

Anyway, it turns out Jay is in Birmingham to speak at the NFU conference today. Hopefully he’ll whip up the audience into a frenzy over his views on organics, food security and the (lack of) meaningful policy changes the coalition government’s made to enhance  UK agriculture since it came to power. Or he might just give us some anecdotes of when he met the president. Or the pope. Or whoever it was.

Pig-tail pulling aside, I actually had quite an interesting chat with Jay in the NFU conference bar last night. Once I’d got past his insults, it was nice to see there’s someone with a national media profile who actually understands and supports British agriculture.

It’s even better that he’s a proper journalist, with a real notebook and everything. Fingers crossed he takes good notes and feels inclined to share his thoughts with more people in the real world.

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The DEFRA love-in turns sour

After the glamour of the Soil Association conference in Manchester last week, this week I’m at the NEC in Birmingham for the National Farmers Union’s annual meeting.

With no general election on the immediate horizon, union president Peter Kendall in the hot seat for another year and a DEFRA team widely seen as sympathetic towards farming, I was all prepared for a Caroline Spelman/NFU love-in.

Only it didn’t quite work out like that.

With his sleeves rolled-up to show he really meant business, Peter took to the conference stage and spent a couple of minutes praising Cazza and her team’s efforts to cut agricultural red tape, tackle bovine TB and protect research and development from budgets cuts.

Peter Kendall

But like a cat playing with a mouse before chomping its head off, Peter swiftly launched into attack over DEFRA’s lack of direction and it’s failure to have a proper plan for the future of food production in the UK.

Rising grain costs, low meat and milk prices, CAP reform and the country’s increasing reliance on food imports meant agriculture was facing huge challenges which needed urgent and immediate action, he said.

Cazza got up and tried to ease the tension, pleading the ‘I’m one of you’ line by mentioning her NFU credentials no less than three times. NFU credentials, I might add, that reach back to the year I was born.

Like a school girl who’d had a telling off, she attempted to coyly tilt her head and smile her way out of the situation, claiming the government had its head screwed on over farming and had got a food plan in the shape of the Food 2030 strategy.

So that’ll be the same Food 2030 strategy that was written by the Labour government then, Cazza? The same strategy that features your predecessor?

Hilary Benn Food 2030

Oh, and Gordon Brown?

Gordon Brown Food 2030

Something tells me we won’t be seeing any of the current DEFRA lot brandishing a copy of that any time soon.

Cazza may have expected the honeymoon period with the industry to continue for a bit longer, but after nine months in office, farmers are expecting to see some action pretty soon. Let’s just hope her department’s upcoming TB and red tape announcements don’t give them grounds for divorce.

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Chewy and viscous

I promise to blog about the Soil Association conference properly at some point (I’ll be putting my ranting hat on – be warned), but in the meantime I thought I’d share this with you.

One of the rather nice perks of going to the SA conference is the conference goodie bag. As the event is sponsored by chocolate company Green and Blacks, the freebies usually consist of something cocoa-related.

While I was slightly disappointed the big box in the bag was actually a lump of tofu and not a giant block of choccy, I was pretty pleased that there was a rather smashing Green and Blacks recipe book in there.

I spent a good few hours over the weekend drooling over what my housemate Alex has now termed ‘The Chocolate Porn Book’ before plumping on making some ginger and chocolate cupcakes.

Sound nice, eh? I donned my apron, got out my Le Creuset bake-ware (I’m really a middle-class, middle-aged house wife trapped in a twenty-something’s body) and got cracking.

cheffing

And very pretty the cakes turned out too.

Pleased with the results, I proudly took my organic, chocolately delicacies to FW Towers today so my FW chums could share in my Soil Association conference spoils.

The response?

“Chewy,” said Mr Poultry. “And viscous.”

That’s the last time I’m taking my baking to work.

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Orange you glad I’m the one covering this conference….

I’ve come up to Manchester for the Soil Association’s annual conference.

I thought, having spent the last few months in hot countries, that I have a decent sun-tan compared to most people.

I hadn’t counted on some of the lovely ladies of the North West.

orangeI love Manchester.

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“It’s starting to blow a bit”

If I was living in Queensland I’d be starting to wonder who I’d annoyed.

After much of the southern part of the state was declared a disaster zone earlier last month thanks to some of the worst flooding ever seen, northern Queensland is now facing it’s own disaster – Cyclone Yasi.

When I was staying in Innisfail, about an hour south from the state capital of Cairns, my friend Marty talked a lot about Cyclone Larry, a tropical cyclone which hit the region in 2006 and did a huge amount of damage to farms, houses and towns.

It pretty much decimated the banana, paw paw and mango industry, snapping trees at their bases and taking out millions of dollars-worth of crops in a matter of minutes. Many farmers were forced out of  business and some of the ones I met were still trying to get back on their feet.

Paw Paws in Innisfail

What’s scary is that Cyclone Larry was a category 4 hurricane. The latest one, Yasi, is category 5.

According to meteorologists, storms and winds of up to 160mph are going to hit north-west Queensland for ten hours within the next few hours (from 11am GMT). There will be an hour’s lull as the storm passes over, then another ten hours of storms will follow.

The cyclone – described as the worst in a century –  is expected to hit at high tide, causing 7m surges in low-lying areas. It’s so strong it’s expected to move up to 300km inland and force rains southwards across a state which is already saturated. The state’s premier, Anna Bligh, said the cyclone’s impact is going to be more life-threatening “than any experienced in recent generations”. Ten thousand people have moved to shelters, those that haven’t have been told to stay in their homes.

Yasi is predicted to hit the coast very close to Marty’s place, where he farms barramundi with his wife Linda and children Harvey and Emma.

Marty
I managed to get hold of Marty on Monday, when he said things were “hectic”. He’s just sent me a text message which says: “It’s starting to blow a bit now”. I assume he’s the master of understatement.

Having spent so long in the region, it’s hard to imagine how the largely wooden, stilted houses are going to stand up to such ferocious winds. Having seen the landscape, I know the majority of crops don’t stand a chance.

Etty Bay
Fingers crossed everyone manages to stay safe. Thinking of you.

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Settling back in

I’ve avoided blogging for a week or so, partly to give you a rest and partly because I didn’t trust myself not to just whinge about the fact that England is BLOODY FREEZING.

temperatures
In just 24 hours on a plane I lost 35 degrees. Seriously, I don’t remember it being this cold before.

And what’s with the sun not making an appearance? For five days last week I went to FW Towers before the sun came up and left when it was dark. The lack of daylight has played havoc with my already-wrecked body clock, leaving me half-asleep at 2pm and wide awake at four in the morning. Thank goodness for my suntan, it’s doing a cracking job of disguising what would otherwise be pallid skin and my blood-shot eyes.

Aside from missing a source of Vitamin D, there are a few other things I’ve had to get accustomed to:

1. Wearing shoes. Four months of flip flops has left my midget feet flat and wide like a hobbit’s. They have not appreciated being squeezed into 4”, pointy-toed stilletoes.

2. A life without iced coffee. I’m probably healthier for it, but boy do I miss that sickly, milky, syrupy, caffeiney goodness.

3. Not going to the beach. While I hate going in it, I love being by the sea. Sadly, Vauxhall just doesn’t compare.

Admittedly being back’s not been all bad. It’s been nice to see the family, my Bestest and The Boy. It’s  been nice to find out my housemates didn’t kill my fish in my absence. It’s been nice to see my FW chums and to get back to with arguing with The Farmer. Heck, it’s even been nice to get back into writing about the CAP.

I’d been warned about the post-travelling come-down, so I know I’ll be okay if I just persevere for a bit. After all, Spring’s not far away. It’s got to get warmer soon, right? Right?

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